Town officials say that when the sun is shining at just the right angle, you can still see asbestos-laden vermiculite glistening in the yards of homes where children play in Libby, a Superfund toxic waste site. More than 1,000 homes and businesses remain to be cleaned.
“We aren’t asking for a lot,” says Gayla Benefield, an advocate for Libby’s victims who lost both her parents to slow and painful asbestos-related disease. “We just want the EPA to live up to the promises that they made to us.”
Ignored for years by the outside world, Libby’s heartbreaking story has become well known. From vermiculite mined in this pretty mountain town of 12,000 people, the W.R. Grace Corp. sold insulation, fireproofing and gardening materials around the world for 30 years.
Trouble was, the vermiculite was loaded with tremolite asbestos, a virulent form of the fibrous mineral that causes lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. The dust was spread throughout Libby on the clothing of miners and blown into the air from the mine’s processing plants. People not only insulated their homes with vermiculite in Libby, but the mine gave away ore residue and unwitting residents hauled off great piles of these tailings to spread in their gardens and to use as backfill on their properties. It was even laid down on the high school track.
When Grace started losing lawsuits filed by sick residents, the corporation spun off its profitable assets and went bankrupt in 2001, leaving the town and taxpayers holding the bag.
The death toll is 200 so far in Libby, and nearly 2,000 locals have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. Residents fear that the longer the cleanup takes, the more people will take ill.
More than 180 residential and commercial properties have been cleaned, including the mine’s old processing plants and the school track. But this budget year, the Bush administration gave the Libby cleanup $4 million less than the $19 million dispersed the year before and $6 million less than the local EPA requested. That means the families of Libby will remain at potential risk—not for five more years as originally promised, but for as many as 12, residents say.
The EPA contends this year’s cleanup budget is smaller only because Libby received more money than it should have gotten during the last budget year. But that explanation is “semantics,” one EPA official acknowledges.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Mayor Tony Berget says. “The faster we can clean this up, the better.”
“I’m worried that more people will get sick,” says one resident involved with the cleanup, Gordon Sullivan. “We’ve got yards in Libby that look like diamond fields. They’re just shining with asbestos. Kids from the neighborhoods walk across these properties every day.”
In another slap at Libby last month, cleanup workers learned at 4 in the afternoon that their hourly wages would be cut starting the next day, from a minimum of $24 to $14. With workers complaining, the EPA now is considering raising their pay back to $19 an hour. Still, residents are afraid the pay cut will damage morale and undermine the quality of the cleanup.
At the peak of the cleanup last summer, 120 people were working for EPA contractors in Libby, and these were some of the best jobs in the economically depressed town.
“We have a very dedicated workforce,” Sullivan says. “These are people who really give a hoot. Why is the EPA hurting their pride?”
Sullivan, who used to work for the Anaconda company in Butte, is paid through an EPA grant to advise townspeople on technical matters involving the cleanup. Now, he is going door-to-door asking businesspeople to sign a resolution urging the EPA to add funds.
“The response has been good so far,” he says. “There are some businesses who are openly opposed. When your town is designated a Superfund site, that places a huge stigma on the community. But that’s one of the primary reasons that we need to get this place cleaned up as fast as we can so we can get back on our feet and get the economy growing.”
Libby’s families are also writing letters in a “we-want-our-town-back” campaign. They hope to present the letters personally to new EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt. Sen. Max Baucus is calling on Leavitt to visit Libby to hear from residents personally, and the senator “is extremely frustrated at what appears to be a decreasing momentum in getting Libby a clean bill of health for the long term,” Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser said.
Libby isn’t likely to receive much satisfaction from Leavitt. The former Utah governor isn’t frequently mistaken for an environmentalist. Under Leavitt, for example, Utah tied for last place in enforcement of the Clean Water Act.
Even if Leavitt did want to help Libby, how much could he do? The Bush administration has allowed the Superfund program to become short of money, and the pace of cleanups across the country has slowed dramatically in the last two years.
The EPA is telling residents not to worry, but the message is less than reassuring. Wendy Thomi, an EPA official based in Helena, points out that at least Libby isn’t as dusty as it used to be.
“People who worked in those processing plants will tell you that they could not see their hand one foot in front of their face,” Thomi says. “That’s how dusty it was. There’s nothing in Libby today that approximates that kind of exposure. But nobody can really guess at how many people will get sick.”
E-mail the reporter: jwoods@ missoulanews.com